HARARE –– Zimbabwe has known only one leader since independence. First as prime minister, then president, there has only been Robert Mugabe at the top for the last 36 years.
There have been challenges, opposition and violence, but the 92-year-old leader has always known how to deal with dissent and stay in power, frequently using brutal tactics.
But now there are protesters, young and leaderless, united by social media.
Erstwhile confidants of Mugabe, themselves liberation war heroes, are emerging to challenge him for political leadership.
And members of the security forces, so key to maintaining order, are no longer unquestioningly loyal. Are all of the ingredients finally in place for a change in Zimbabwe.
That’s what the activists would have you believe. They are a new breed for Zimbabwe, growing up under Mugabe, and they seem fearless and ready to be counted.
“Let them see us,” says Hardlife Mzingu of the Tajamuka campaign. Translated, the movement’s name means “we are fed up”.
Unlike previous opposition movements, they don’t have a single leader to depend on, who could disappear or be discredited; instead they have social media to reach and unite thousands.
“We have a future that is being destroyed in this country. And it is our role in this country to rebuild that future,” says Mzingu.
“These are young people, across the political divide, across creeds, across social divisions in the country, who have met and resolved they have to fulfill our generational mandate.”
That mandate, he says, is to push Mugabe out.
For weeks now they’ve stood up to Mugabe’s security forces on the streets of the capital Harare in what are quickly becoming weekly protests.
Armed with smart phones, they capture the confrontations. There’s the video of the protester dressed in bright red on the steps of the courthouse, turning briefly to face the five riot police that surround him. He raises his arms and they raise their batons, beating him from all sides.
It’s videos like that, and the countless still images of abuse shared on Whatsapp, that are driving these activists. But they know, for the movement to work, it needs to take hold outside of the capital city and in the rural strongholds of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
As dusk approaches, we follow them away from our meeting spot at an upscale shopping center and down one of the roads leading outside of Harare.
“Wait here,” says one of the activists as they slip through the gate of a nondescript cement house.
A few moments later they return and invite us in. A crowd of about 30 sits in the backyard as chickens scuttle around.
All of them are wearing white “Mugabe must go” t-shirts. They say the t-shirt alone could get them beaten or arrested.
“How many people from your area can we count on tomorrow?” one of the leaders asks those gathered. “One hundred? Can we count on that? If you bring 100 people, we’ll make sure to provide you with transportation.”
“Tomorrow” is another protest planned over social media. The courts have just overturned a government order banning demonstrations for two weeks and the activists don’t want to waste any time getting back on the streets, where they expect to face tear gas and worse.
“We are not afraid of what will come,” says Mzingu.